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Dec/Jan 2007Vol. 7, No. 9Factors Impacting Child Welfare Involvement

In urban settings, child welfare involvement is strongly associated with poverty, while children's mental health problems appear to be a greater contributor to child welfare involvement in nonurban settings, according to a recent study. The study examined the relationship between children's mental health, children's age, and family poverty as they are associated with child welfare involvement for children in urban and nonurban settings.

Researchers used data from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being, including information on 3,798 children involved with child welfare services, approximately one-third of whom were in out-of-home care. Information on family income, the ability of the family to meet basic needs, and the presence of clinical mental health or behavior issues, along with other factors, was analyzed. Results showed a complex interplay among the various factors:

  • The poverty level was high among the entire group. About half of the children in out-of-home care and one-third of those receiving in-home services lived in families where the parents had trouble meeting the children's basic needs.
  • Very poor children from urban settings were significantly more likely to enter out-of-home placement than other urban children; in nonurban settings, there was no significant difference in the likelihood of placement by poverty status.
  • Among all nonurban children in out-of-home care, approximately 83 percent had a borderline or clinical score on a measure of child behavior and mental health; among urban children, the percentage was 56 percent.

The authors of the study suggest that approximately 19 percent of children entering out-of-home placements in child welfare do not necessarily have an unfit parent; instead, many of the families of these children turn to child welfare to obtain mental health services for their children. This seems to be more common among nonurban, nonpoor families who are not experiencing the problems often associated with child welfare involvement, such as domestic violence or substance abuse. The overall diversity of children and families who have child welfare involvement highlights the ongoing need for individualized approaches and for adequate mental health services in all areas.

"Placement Into Foster Care and the Interplay of Urbanicity, Child Behavior Problems, and Poverty," by Richard Barth, Judy Wildfire, and Rebecca Green, appeared in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 76(3). The article can be purchased online: